After Tense Week, Israeli Army Prepares for Flare-up at Friday's Gaza Protest

If border gets more tense, Netanyahu may be compelled to force military to strike, even against its wishes, says top Israeli military brass

A Palestinian man slinging stones during a protest at the beach in northern Gaza, October 15, 2018.
Khalil Hamra,AP

Over the last few days, and especially since Wednesday’s meeting of the security cabinet, the defense establishment has realized that the question of how to deal with Hamas in the Gaza Strip has ceased to be purely a security issue, driven by military considerations, and become a political issue instead.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman sees and hears the public criticism he is taking over his inaction in Gaza and understands very well that he is in a war for his political future. This became evident on Wednesday, a few hours before the security cabinet meeting began.

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At a closed meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior officers in the Gaza Division presented their plans for dealing with Hamas, which focused mainly on creating a wider buffer zone along the border. At least for now, the officers considered this a sufficient solution to the security problem.

On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces hit 20 Hamas targets in response to rocket fire on Be’er Sheva and the southern Gush Dan region earlier in the day. But the officers said this tactic had exhausted itself, and Wednesday’s targets were primarily ones where the IDF was simply exploiting an opportunity to hit them.

Moreover, the defense establishment argues, the rockets weren’t fired on Hamas’ direct orders, and all the Palestinian terrorist groups issued an unusual joint statement denying responsibility for the attacks. Therefore, there’s no justification for escalating the situation.

Netanyahu accepted the army’s position, and Lieberman spent the rest of the day trying, through conversations with various parties, to minimize what he perceived as the consequent damage to his image by making his own, more hawkish position clear.

Both government and defense sources said that Netanyahu’s rejection of Lieberman’s position stemmed primarily from the defense minister’s failure to present any clear plan or even clear goals. He was unable to explain what he wanted to achieve via the harsh military action he was demanding.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding a situation assessment over the Gaza-border escalation, October 17, 2018.
Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

>> Read more: Gaza Escalation: Netanyahu and Lieberman Are Talking Israel Into a Corner | Analysis ■ Israeli Defense Chief Talks Tough on Gaza but Fails to Present Concrete Plan

At every defense forum he has attended in recent days, Lieberman has been told that no air strikes, however devastating, can completely end the incendiary kites and balloons, much less the violent demonstrations along the border fence. Various officials explained to Lieberman that Hamas will never agree to end the demonstrations and reach a cease-fire with Israel solely in exchange for a renewed supply of fuel, because Hamas can’t go back to Gazans, who have suffered some 200 dead and many thousands of wounded, without something substantial that will improve their lives and extricate them from their economic distress.

Lieberman refused to accept this. But people who participated in Wednesday’s security cabinet discussions said he still hasn’t submitted any concrete proposal for how to deal with Gaza, nor has he specified the goals of the military operation he seeks.

This situation has led to tensions between the army and the defense minister. The latter feels that the army isn’t trying to meet him halfway, and is effectively going over his head to work directly with Netanyahu while ignoring his, Lieberman’s, views.

The IDF understands that the situation is sensitive from both a security and a political standpoint, and that even Netanyahu will eventually reach a point where restraint becomes impossible in light of the criticism he is taking from his electorate. Therefore, the army is trying to prepare for any scenario.

Among other things, it has begun beefing up Southern Command’s forces. Tanks and artillery have been deployed along the border, and infantry units were brought in from other places to bolster the forces that will deal with Friday’s planned demonstrations.

The security cabinet told the IDF to take a hard line, but it’s not yet clear what this actually means. The army is therefore preparing for the possibility of an escalation that would force Hamas to respond. It has stationed anti-missile batteries in various parts of the country, both near the border and farther away.

Despite the IDF’s view that a large-scale military operation is unwarranted, it understands that any major incident along the fence on Friday could cause the security cabinet to change course and demand such an operation.

Nevertheless, it urged the ministers not to judge Friday’s demonstrations by the number of incendiary balloons and burning tires, which Lieberman insisted that Hamas must stop completely. Rather, the army brass says, the test will be what happens farther from the fence, among Hamas’ leadership.

The IDF believes that the determine factor in Friday’s confrontation with Hamas will be how hard Hamas tries to prevent violence and lower the flames. Neither incendiary balloons nor burning tires provide a good indication of this, says the army.